Guest Opinion: Financial stability is key for diverse communities

  • by Joaquín Torres
  • Wednesday April 10, 2024
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Assessor-Recorder Joaquín Torres. Photo: Courtesy SF Assessor-Recorder's office
Assessor-Recorder Joaquín Torres. Photo: Courtesy SF Assessor-Recorder's office

As your elected assessor-recorder, my staff and I are committed to providing excellent public service and ensuring San Francisco's financial stability through the work we do every day, fairly and accurately.

The approximately $4 billion in revenue generated by our work in assessing the taxable value of all property allows the city to address our most pressing needs in service to our diverse constituencies from public safety to economic recovery, mental health and homelessness, small business support and public education, transportation and our parks, affordable housing and more.

Our approaches to this work become more essential than ever during times of transition, uncertainty around property values, a changing downtown, and rising assessment appeals. While property tax is a more stable source of revenue for the city, being less volatile than other types of taxes — the city controller is projecting that we'll see less growth in the coming fiscal year, dropping to approximately 3% from the 4.6% we saw this year, largely due to the impact of office vacancies and high interest rates.

At the same time, we're focused on addressing the rise in both commercial and residential assessment appeals, which have ballooned to over 7,500 new appeals this year, more than triple what we were seeing before the pandemic. To meet this challenge, we've restructured our teams to create efficiency, resulting in our closing significantly more appeals these last two years. And we continue to advocate for more resources to support us as we face a years-long marathon of working through assessments in a timely manner and the appeals that lie ahead of us.

We're making common sense changes that make it easier to access the public records like deeds of trusts, liens, marriage certificates, and more. It typically takes up to 10 days to receive an official marriage certificate after getting married. So, we're piloting a process to provide same-day marriage certificates for newlyweds. We've digitized 7 million records and counting so that they may be offered online, saving people a trip to City Hall. Starting in May, we'll be the only assessor-recorder in California to provide an option to download free, unofficial copies of records instead of having to purchase official ones before people can see what's in them. And, for the first time in over two decades, we're updating the fees for purchasing official copies of records, resulting in decreased costs for the majority of our constituents who purchase them online.

At our annual Family Wealth Forum at City College of San Francisco, neighborhood meetings, real estate agencies, community centers, and public libraries, we've given presentations and answered people's questions on the issues that impact their finances like Proposition 19 (property tax transfers) and intergenerational transfers, business personal property, tax savings, how new construction impacts your property assessment, financial scam prevention, the legacy of housing segregation in San Francisco, and our work in redacting racially restrictive covenants in deeds and raising awareness of biases in the private appraisal market.

Estate planning

We've heard from residents that the costs of creating an estate plan, oftentimes thousands of dollars, are prohibitive. Estate planning is important — for individual families and for communities that want to see each other, generation to generation, present in the neighborhoods they live in. But the financial burden, the difficult conversations about death and what comes next, and the lack of accessible resources to help one understand why planning now is possible and can make a difference, often prevent people from protecting themselves and their families.

So, in 2021, we spearheaded an Estate Planning Program in partnership with the organization Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, or HERA. We believe that everyone across all diverse communities and income levels should be able to build intergenerational wealth and ensure that their hard-earned assets, wishes, and intentions are honored.

With financial support from the Crankstart Foundation, we're providing 200 free and low-cost estate plans to San Franciscans, with a particular focus on the southeast and other neighborhoods of our city where there is a combination of high homeownership rates, lower-income communities, and historically marginalized communities of color. We're also collaborating with community-based organizations to share the process of creating a complete estate plan, which includes legal documents like a living trust, will, power of attorney, and advanced medical directive.

I'm excited to share that we're hosting an Estate Planning Resources event for seniors on Friday, April 19, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center at 1800 Market Street in partnership with HERA, the center, and Openhouse SF.

With these long-standing organizations that provide vital services to LGBTQ+ seniors and the community at large, we'll be covering estate planning basics and sharing local resources for seniors such as low-cost estate plans, financial planning, and aging and disability services.

Estate planning is essential in avoiding probate and speeding up the settlement of an estate, but it's not just for homeowners or people who may have many assets. Estate planning provides a critical foundation of safety and security for people during each step of their life. Having an advanced medical directive and power of attorney in place allows a person the freedom to choose who will care for them, have access to their medical and financial information, and carry out their intentions in the case of an emergency.

These items should not be left to chance. It's important to have the necessary conversations now. Through our event on April 19, we hope to make this topic and our services more accessible to people, connect residents with the community organizations that can help them begin this process, build wealth from one generation to the next, and ultimately bring people peace of mind with the knowledge that their future is secure.

Joaquín Torres, an ally, is the elected assessor-recorder for the City and County of San Francisco. The assessor-recorder's mission is to fairly and accurately identify and assess all taxable property in the City and County of San Francisco and record, secure, and provide access to property, marriage, and other records.

If you have any questions on estate planning, property assessment, or any other topic, please don't hesitate to call us via 311, email us at [email protected] or drop in to our office in San Francisco City Hall, Room 190.

To RSVP for the April 19 estate planning event, click here.

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